ABC7 Investigates: Has LA made progress in tackling homeless crisis in Mayor Karen Bass' first year?

The mayor says more than 21,000 people who were suffering and dying on the streets have been brought inside.

Josh Haskell Image
Monday, December 18, 2023
ABC7 Investigates: Has LA made progress in tackling homeless crisis?
ABC7's Josh Haskell, who has covered Mayor Karen Bass' efforts to address homelessness, looks at whether the crisis has improved in her first year in office.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- As Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass marks one year in office, this was her message on her first day last year: "We hit the ground running with a sea change in how the city tackles homelessness, declaring a state of emergency."

Bass made a promise that the homeless crisis wasn't going to get worse on her watch, but better. Not just for the housed residents, but the unhoused too.

"Once you get out here, very difficult to get off the streets," said Constance Gervasoni, who was homeless and now lives at a motel that's part of the mayor's "Inside Safe" program. "Addiction is very prominent out here. It's almost impossible to not be on something out here. It's cold. It's rainy. It's wet. It's windy."

"There was people that would throw bottles of piss at us," said Taylor Sasser, another "Inside Safe" participant. "There's people that would drop off food, trying to be nice, but you would open it up and it would be the most disgusting ... you don't even know what the hell it is. People have shot at me with BB guns."

So have things improved?

The homeless count for the city of Los Angeles, which was released almost six months ago, found there is 46,000 people experiencing homelessness. In her first year in office, Bass says nearly 22,000 people were brought inside, which is 28% higher than the nearly 17,000 housed in 2022.

Most came inside through existing local, state, and federal programs, including tiny homes, Project Homekey, a bridge home, shelters, and traditional housing.

However, nearly 2,000 people came inside through the mayor's "Inside Safe" program, which removed 33 of the city's most problematic encampments.

The program's retention rate was 8%, higher than other interim housing options. But only a few hundred of the nearly 2,000 housed under "Inside Safe" have moved into permanent housing.

"No. I am not OK with that," said Bass. "That has been a very frustrating aspect. But one of the things we have to reconcile is the fact that there were thousands of people in interim housing waiting before 'Inside Safe' started."

Ben Henwood, a USC Professor of social policy and health, said without enough access to affordable housing, exits from homelessness are going to be limited.

"So programs like 'Inside Safe,' or any other short term housing solution, ultimately aren't going to solve the problem unless there's more housing available."

Henwood is an expert on housing and homelessness and says as long as the drivers of homelessness exist - a lack of affordable housing and rising home prices - the number of people living on our streets will continue to rise.

A Nov. 10 status report found the city spent roughly $67 million on 'Inside Safe' from the homelessness emergency account. The average nightly rate for a room is about $113.

"It is a very expensive program, but you're addressing an incredibly expensive crisis," said Rowan Vansleve, the president of Hope the Mission, the service provider at the Canoga Park 'Inside Safe' motel Eyewitness News toured last week.

"Mayor Bass is bringing resources to address over 60 years of bad policy. We need to get people off the streets immediately and into a stable environment where they can start their healing process. We do need more mental health services. The county needs to flood these sites with mental health services, addiction services."

The homeless people living at the motel are from two 'Inside Safe' operations in CD-3, Councilman Bob Blumenfield's district. Roughly 120 people have rotated through this motel since March, but only five have been permanently housed.

'Inside Safe' motels aren't meant to be permanent and there's a risk some participants will grow frustrated with how long it takes to get permanent housing and end up where they started.

But for Sasser, who just applied for an apartment and is enrolling back in school, living in a tent again is not an option.

"This program has given an opportunity for us to actually get off the street and figure out a long term goal of getting housing," she said. "Everybody here, especially the staff, is beyond helpful. They're amazing. They actually care, which is great because in the past, I've had negative experiences."

Gervasoni is about to move into permanent housing in Sylmar after living in the Canoga Park motel since March. She said she was offered services before when she lived along the L.A. River a few blocks away, but they were temporary.

"There's a shower, there's a bathtub, there's a toilet, there's hot food. It beats the sidewalk. It beats getting soaking wet in the rain. It beats being dirty for days and having filthy fingernails, it beats all that," she said. "Living in a small space is way better than living out here in all this space. Having people hate you because you're homeless, there's nothing you can do about it."

Bass tells Eyewitness News year two of 'Inside Safe' will include more services at the interim housing sites and different types of housing as motels are expensive and absent from some council districts.

The city even purchased a hotel in the mayor's first year: the Mayfair in the Westlake District. But at the city's first 'Inside Safe' site in Hollywood on Cahuenga Boulevard under the 101 Freeway, some tents have returned one year later.

"No, it doesn't surprise me, but what is different is that they're not the same individuals," said Bass. "Those are new individuals coming into homelessness, but I guarantee you, by the end of the year, those tents will be cleared as well."

Grace Manthey contributed to this report.